Thrashers: Training camp preview

By Holly Gunning

Last fall, with the many new faces in the Thrashers
lineup, including Shawn McEachern and Slava Kozlov, the team needed to use preseason games for working
out line combinations and finding chemistry. 
This season, the top two lines are returning intact. 
There will be more flexibility for the team to take a look at prospects
and gauge their development.

During this offseason, the Thrashers allowed Svartvadet, Bartecko, Odgers, and others to leave the team. Thus while the top two lines are intact, the third and fourth
lines are open for competition.  These jobs are wide open and gives the greatest hope for a prospect hoping to catch on with the team. It is Coach Bob Hartley’s first training camp with the Thrashers, and it promises to be an uptempo, spirited affair.

Prospect signings

In the summer of 2002, the prospect signings were rather
low profile: draft picks goaltender Michael Garnett and defensemen Paul
Flache, Libor Ustrnul
and Pauli Levokari. 
Mark Hartigan was also signed as a free agent. Two of the five spent most
of the 2002-03 season in the ECHL.

This year, the prospects who have been signed are much
higher profile: 2002 first round pick goaltender Kari Lehtonen, and Finnish Elite League stand out Tommi Santala and rugged winger Stephen Baby from Cornell.  Forwards Anthony Aquino from Merrimack/Oshawa and Brian
from Michigan State will also attend their first NHL training camp after
being signed late last season.  Of
the five new signees, only Santala has a realistic chance of making the team out
of camp.  He has the easiest
transition to make, as a forward coming from a professional league.  

Another new face at camp will be Braydon Coburn. 
Drafted eighth overall in this past June, Coburn is unsigned and likely
will be returned to his junior team before the start of the regular season. Still the team is eager to see how this highly rated prospect fares against NHL competition in the preseason games.

Preseason schedule

Sept. 18th Home vs Tampa
Sept. 19th Away vs. Tampa
Sept. 20th Away vs. Carolina
Sept. 23rd Home vs. Carolina
Sept. 26th Away vs. Carolina
Sept. 27th Away vs. Nashville
Oct. 1st Home vs. Florida
Oct. 3rd Home vs. Nashville

Three games in three nights to kick off the preseason means that every still in camp will get a chance to play.

The Thrashers again play the Nashville Predators, the
closest NHL team to Atlanta, twice, more often in preseason than they do in the
regular season. 

Making the cut

The gutting of the third line offers a chance for many
young guys in the organization, but there are very few in contention for these
spots who still young enough to be considered true prospects. 
Only Tommi Santala, Garnet Exelby and Kirill Safronov are
still under 25.

Exelby played 15 games with the big club at the end of last
year, and did well.  Safronov saw
32, in three different stints, and was inconsisent. 
Exelby will almost certainly make the roster out of camp, given the team’s need for more physicality from the defense, but there are a lot of defensemen under contract so Exelby may spend
some time rotating in the press box at first until the roster shakes out a bit.
Safronov will likely go to Chicago until injuries necessitate the eventual
return trip. 

Tommi Santala has the inside track on the third line center
job.  At 24, he should be ready to
step right into the NHL, albeit with some adjustment curve. He was a leading scorer in Finland, with a responsible two-way game. If he clearly isn’t ready, he could be sent to Chicago and Kamil Piros or new signees Brian Swanson or Randy Robitaille could get their chance.

Goaltender Kari Lehtonen will spend most of his time
with the farm club in Chicago.  With
Pasi Nurminen and Byron Dafoe already in net, there’s no pressing need for
Lehtonen’s services, therefore no need to rush him.  He might see some games late in the season, provided that the
Thrashers are not in a critical playoff hunt. Lehtonen would probably not be the first call up in an injury situation either, as the team will still have NHL experienced goaltender Milan Hnilicka in Chicago as well, barring a trade.

Checker Zdenek Blatny and skill winger Simon Gamache will likely
see some time later in the year when injuries open spots. 
Offensive defenseman Kurtis Foster is another who might see some games at the end of
the year if time allows.

Skilled centerman Kamil Piros and rugged defenseman turned winger Francis Lessard are too old to be
considered prospects, but would be considered NHL rookies this year. 
Both have a better than 50/50 chance of making the team.

While older players are favored to fill the open jobs, there is always the possibility of one of the younger prospects to surprise and make the cut. Potential dark horse candidates are wingers Karl Stewart, Brian Maloney, and checking center Derek MacKenzie. It would take an extremely good camp for these players to be considered.

Free agent invitees

Brandon Dietrich, C
Sam Paolini, LW
Kevin Doell, C
Danny Bois, RW

New ECHL destination

Players who don’t make the team with the primary farm
club in Chicago will be headed right back where they started training camp, to
Duluth in suburban Atlanta.  The
Thrashers have signed a new affiliation agreement with the Gwinnett Gladiators
whose arena is just down Satellite Blvd. from the Thrashers practice facility. The previous ECHL affiliate was the Greenville Grrrowl.  

Thrashers training camp opens September 11th. 

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